'Mad Men' explores advertising's heyday

Vincent Kartheiser in the Mad Men television show.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Even though Hollywood's just up the freeway from where we are in Los Angeles, we don't get to mingle with the stars all that often. But we got a chance last week with a trip to the set of "Mad Men." It's a new hour-long drama series that debuts tomorrow on AMC.

Set in the capital of 1960s advertising, New York's Madison Avenue. A time and a place where men made the big decisions, and women took notes and made the coffee — or just as often set out the cocktail shaker and the ice. And to be an ad executive was to be at the very top of the corporate food chain.

We sat down with the show's creator, Matt Weiner, in the conference room of his fictional ad agency.

Director: And . . . action.

Actor 1: What Lee Jr. said is right. If you can't make those health claims, neither can your competitors.

Actor 2: So, we got a lot of people not saying anything that sells cigarettes.

Actor 1: Not exactly. This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want.

Director: And cut. OK, good.

Ryssdal: The first episode opens with Don Draper, the creative director at Sterling & Cooper, the ad agency you've created, having trouble with a cigarette account — Lucky Strike, the iconic American cigarette. Why'd you pick that?

Matt Weiner: I picked Lucky Strike because I wanted to have a real brand in there, and because there was a crisis in cigarette advertising that coincided with . . . first a report in the mid-50s, I think in '56 or something, where it was basically acknowledged that cigarettes were dangerous. The cigarette industry's response was to start putting filters on and starting advertising who's was the most healthy. And then the government said, you can't say that anymore, you can't have doctors anymore. So they were at a crisis — how were we going to sell this product? But it took Don out of a moral question and put him into a selling question. And the selling question then becomes about him and about what we want, and about how we feel about ourselves. And that just seemed to be just a very rich area to me.

Ryssdal: And he makes a great speech, and he says advertising is based on one thing . . .

Don Draper Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing, it's OK.

Ryssdal: Has that changed at all since 1960?

Weiner: I don't think so. I'm not in the advertising business, but I am a fan of it. I think that a lot of our great entertainment, even though we deny it, comes from advertising. We love good ads. Occasionally, it's about what you're afraid of, occasionally it's about what you don't want to think about, but for the most part, it's our idealized selves. What is the best part of us? And that's what they're selling to.

For example, I don't think advertising makes people feel fat, for example. I think people feel fat, and advertising says, "You feel fat, don't you?" So, in the same way happiness is . . . it's like, if you drive this car, you may be the man that you've always wanted to be.

Ryssdal: These guys in this show are very successful, they've got great jobs, they're top-of-the-world white American males in 1959, 1960 America. And yet somehow, I get the sense that they're not satisfied. That they're looking around and saying, "Wait, is this all there is?"

Weiner: Well, I wrote it when I was 35 years old, and I think it's that point, "Is this it? Is this all there is?" is really the question in the show. And it has to do with prosperity and all those things, but it also has to do with where you are in life.

You know, when we get our metabolized version of this history of 1960, it's given to us by baby boomers, who . . . this is their childhood, and they see it as a time of innocence, before Jack Kennedy came in. They can't imagine a world where Jack Kennedy was running for president and people didn't like him. They cannot understand that there is an almost a kind of existential crisis that goes with success, which says, "OK, now I have it, what is my life about?

Ryssdal: Do you think if Don Draper were transplanted to 2007 America, he'd recognize the ad industry?

Weiner: Uh, no, I don't think he would. Because why I picked 1960, besides the fact that the pill came out and it is the height of the '50s and it's right before Kennedy's election was also a huge change in advertising. Which is that Don is part of a traditional white guard in advertising, which has a very specific way of selling things.

And what happened in 1959, was considered the benchmark, was the "Think Small" ad from Volkswagen. It's a subversive advertisement with a sense of humor. It's a stripping away of this all-knowing independent voice. It's a joke about advertising, and it came out of Jews and Italians who were working at other firms who had an immigrant sensibility and said, you know, "Why are we pretending like we're not trying to sell you something? And that attitude really just changed everything in advertising. So Don is a little bit of the old guard. Don is about this happiness aspect, he's not about making fun of advertising.

Ryssdal: There's a visual aspect of this, besides the attention to detail, but it's shot in film.

If you got on the set, we saw the Panavision cameras out there, you're shooting in film. Does that add an element of detail and element of production process for you?

Weiner: It would have been cheaper to not shoot it on film, and honestly I had no desire to not shoot it on film. But I will give that credit to AMC. They wanted this show to be able to sit in their line-up with these movies that they're buying. And I just feel that film, for whatever reason, has a reality to it that we have not been able to imitate on video yet. We do manipulate it for dramatic purposes, but in the end, when you see something on film, you do feel like you're there.

Ryssdal: The show is called Mad Men, it's by creator and executive producer Matt Weiner. It airs on AMC. Matt, thanks a lot.

Weiner: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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